1 Apr 2006

Requium for Counselling

I wrote this a long time ago now; it should probably go in an archive for about 1996, but what the heck, it's fairly bloggy at least. A lot to wade through, but it's stunning stuff if you like that sort of thing.

Requiem for Counselling

Only when you begin to lose that Alpha and. Omega do you want to start to
talk and to write, and then there is no end to it, words, words, words.

Some months ago, I had an awakening, a realisation, a glimpse of the possibility of a new way of living, with real communication, real community. I knew that I needed help and that I could give help. I joined a short Introductory Counselling course, and started reading Carl Rogers; I was frightened but excited, and determined to change my life. Respect, Genuineness, Empathy, yes! Faith in the individual, of course! Recognizing in these concepts the way of being with people that I had glimpsed, I began to see in counselling – for the first time in my life - a place where I could be myself and also be an accepted, contributing member of society. I had found my vocation.
Almost from the beginning of the course, I had a problem with 'empowerment'. Here is an extract from my journal from week two. After considering some experiences of my partner, who is black, in terms of respect, I start to consider 'power'.
"Last night I read 'Black Boy' by Richard Wright. Every relationship he has is infected and distorted by power; within the family, between black people, everywhere. Northern whites of goodwill are constrained by the racist society of the south and a real relationship is impossible. The white man in a racist society can refrain from exercising power, but he cannot abdicate, in the same way that my middle class well-educated English upbringing remains available to me, although I am unemployed and usually choose to avoid using that power. My own experience of this kind of situation was at a minor public school. There were no lynchings, but the structure of the school society was very similar and the emotions and relationships were the same, though obviously far less intense - it was bad enough! Basically, the class structure was replicated with the big ones having power over the little ones. This was maintained by dividing each class into four 'houses' like nations or races, thus diverting any possible resistance in the lower orders towards an artificial conflict within the class. The other feature which maintained the power was its unquestionability. Power relations could not be discussed or acknowledged. There was a complex rhetoric of unity, democracy, Christian values, fair play and sportsmanship which denied the reality of the situation, which was the exact opposite of the talk.... What I want to look at is how these social/political phenomena relate to counselling and counselling training. The power structure of the course is demonstrated in the financial and the seating arrangements. The one who is paid as opposed to paying is the one who controls the door and the seating and the board, and on whom the rest are focused, who organises the games but does not participate in them. At the same time, we are being taught a language - a rhetoric – of respect, genuineness, empathy, non-judgement, tolerance, equality, responsibility, etc. There is the same contradiction between structure and rhetoric, between the talk and the reality, that struck me at school; Double-think! The goal of counselling is empowerment but the method is the standard hierarchical system and the initiation and training is precisely designed to ensure that all the power remains with the counsellor/trainer. Not only is the 'client' not empowered in the relationship/ s/he is also required to be 'responsible' for the disempowerment of the social situation which is the cause of the meeting. The counsellor is subverted into acting as a means of social control, diverting the pain and dissatisfaction of the individual away from its source in the structure of social relations towards internal relations; 'divide and rule on the level of the individual psyche."
Two weeks later, I borrowed a book from the library:- Group Counselling 4th edition, by Gerald Corey. It seemed to be an important book as there were several copies; I think it is a set book for the diploma course. This book hurt me and it hurt my partner. I spent some time writing an unsolicited essay criticising the book's attitude to issues of race. This was, and is an important issue for me. The book promoted a dangerous attitude to ethnic minorities, and I wanted the department to take some action;- to challenge the views being expressed. I gave the essay to my tutor with a note asking him to pass it on to his colleagues and hoping that they would start to look for material by black people instead of about them and suggesting that they might like to organise a workshop on race.
The following week, I was given a controlled ten-minute chat by my tutor in which he explained that the essay had made him rethink some of his ideas, but there was not much he could do to change anything. He did not run the Group Counselling course; he didn't know anything about publishing articles; the department couldn't let unqualified people (my partner and I) give talks on racism. Lacking the time, and the confidence, to respond directly, I reply in my journal:- "How predictable, P, that you deny your own and your department's power to change reality, as an excuse for disempowering me.... From my disempowered position as "unqualified', "unemployed'/ etc. I am reclaiming the power that you and your department have usurped. I am a Rogerian, and you by your actions are not. I claim equal right to assess you and the course as you claim the right to assess me and this journal. Carl Rogers had to fight for the right to practice before he could even begin to empower others."
At the end of the journal, I am debating with myself whether or not to apply for the next course:- "...I don't have a choice. All choice is conflict, but now I can be happy; I have no choice. I am right to be angry at falseness. I am right to be afraid and ashamed of the world we are making. I am right to be fighting to empower the downtrodden and oppressed. And I am right to be starting with the counselling trainers of XXXX College. I am a whole, feeling, growing person; it's your choice if you want me on the next course, my course is set and in judging me you are really only judging yourselves. It is a hard choice for you because either way, all this and more is going to leap out of this journal and into the wide world. I have a faltering sense of my own power and it satisfies me deeply to allow you the power that you claim and deny in the traditional contradiction of oppressors."
Three months later, I am vibrating as I type, with the resonance of the feelings expressed in my journal. I am waiting for my journal to be returned, waiting for an interview for next year's course, getting involved with CRUSE, talking, reading, writing/ living. The other day, I came across some back issues of The BAC Journal/ which have reawakened my interest in the relationships between counselling as an activity and as an institution, and between the profession of Counselling and the related professions of Social-work, and Psychiatry. Thomas Szasz, who did much to draw attention to the relationship between the social and the psychological, gave this warning:-
"The general principle that a liberating rule may, in due time, become another method of oppression, has broad validity for rule-changing manoeuvres of all types.... Christianity, the French Revolution, Marxism, and even psychoanalyses Itself - as a revolution In medicine against the so-called organic tradition - all succumbed to the Inescapable fate of all revolutions - the setting up of new tyrannies.... If we sincerely desire a sclentlflcally respectable psychosoclal theory of man, we shall have to pay far more attention to religious - and perhaps even more to professional - rules and values than has been our custom heretofore." [T.S.Szasz. The Myth of Mental Illness. 1972 P.186-7]
My overall impression from reading the BAC Journal (there are a few beautiful exceptions) is that counselling is dead. There is so much about training, accreditation, models, techniques, about definitions and codes of ethics, and so little about clients and counsellors in communication. Nowhere is there any critical analysis of the function of the rules of the institution and their effect on the aims of counselling, one of which I take to be empowerment of the individual. Counsellors seem to have lost their commitment to the individual and have become committed instead to standards, institutions, and models. Nobody knows the limits of human potential, no-one can provide a methodology of life; let's stop prevaricating and defending ourselves, and face the void of ignorance within us as we encounter another human being. I cannot be dispassionate and nor can you. If we care about another, that is passion. It must be expressed as it is felt - with fear and humility, with anger and love. Because I care about you, I am moved to anger and despair when I see you sleepwalking into a jungle of institutional bureaucracy which is diverting, perverting, and strangling the life out of you.
There is so much to talk about, I don't know where to begin. I am a white man, living in a white supremacist, patriarchal society. What can I say about empowerment? Here's what a black woman has to say:-
"Why is it so difficult for many white folks to understand that racism Is oppressive not because white folks have prejudicial feelings about blacks, (they could have such feelings and leave us alone) but because It Is a system that promotes domination and subjugation. The prejudicial feelings some blacks may express about whites are In no way linked to a system of domination that affords us any power to coercively control the lives and well-being of white folks." [bell hooks. Black Looks: race and representation. 1992]
The ending of oppression is to be achieved, not by the setting up of alternative (black?) systems of domination, but by exposing the rhetoric of power which 'justifies' oppression. I met a black man the other day, he was selling insurance. "I was brought up white; I feel white." he said; and later, "You can't know what it is like to be black." I cannot tell him that I treat him just the same, I never say that to white men. I feel the gulf between us of our skins and our society, and it hurts. I can cry about that and cry about his uncried tears - years of tears - a lovely, lonely, friendly man. Spare him your psychological analysis for a moment, and instead consider what feeling white feels like. Do white people feel white? My partner was 'brought up white'. Before I met her, I did not distinguish feeling white from feeling human - they were the same thing. Now I am finding that feeling white, being white, is an uncomfortable, shameful feeling, it seems to mark me as an oppressor.
An acquaintance of my partner has a diploma in counselling. She's probably a member of the BAC, I don't know, but anyway, she has done the Group Counselling course and read the Corey book. "Oh let me touch your hair," she said to my partner, "Oh its lovely and soft, I love African hair." I am reminded of those TV programmes where somebody dares to touch a snake. "Oh its dry and smooth!" they say in surprise. It might be interesting to a white person to wonder what it is like to live in a society where almost everyone has a deep, irrational fear of you which they deny, so that they constantly have to reassure themselves that they 'treat everyone the same'.
For most of us white folks the fear is still unacknowledged and projected onto black people, which is why we put so many of them in prison or mental health wards. It may be possible to overcome the barrier of race - I do not wish to deny the possibility of inter-race counselling - but it cannot be done by denial and projection. Race is fundamentally a white problem, it is not out there but in here. I notice that the BAC has d special section for those who cannot address race issues; why not be open and call it the white section?
I feel like the little boy saying, "The emperor has no clothes." Will anyone else take up the cry? And what happens after? Does the emperor put on clothes, or does everybody take their clothes off, or is there a change of government? You see, in spite of her diploma, my partner's acquaintance is a menace to black people - she thinks that she loves them, and they might believe it too. All the training and certification and accreditation in the world cannot protect one from the risk of doing harm to clients. On the contrary, by giving the illusion of guaranteed competence and adequacy, it increases the risk that one will fail to see the harm that one is doing.
My partner has a black therapist to help her with stress following harassment by white professionals. Now that I have offered to you some of my own confusion and exposed some of my weakness, what kind of counselling would you recommend for me? What core model will suit the case, and what colour or race of counsellor would be the best? I will finish with that essay on Gerald Corey's book that I mentioned, but first a couple of quotations from my own favourite counsellor, J.Krishnamurti.
You can't listen with opinions; you might Just as well be dead. (J.Krishnamurti & Dr. David Bohm. The Ending of Time. 1985 P.228)
I am asking you, is it a shock to discover that your brain, and your mind, your knowledge, are valueless? All your examinations, all your struggles, all the things that you have gathered through years and years, centuries, are absolutely worthless? Do you go mad, because you say you have done all this for nothing? Virtue, abstinence, control, everything -and at the end of it, you say they are valueless! Do you understand what this does to you? (ibid. P.105)
Racist Counseling. A review of "Theory and Practice of Group Counseling 4th. edition." by Gerald Corey."There is a high dropout rate for ethnic minority clients: as many as 52% of them terminate counseling after the first session (Mokuau 1987). One explanation for this obvious dissatisfaction with professional counseling is that these clients quickly make the assessment that they will not get the help they are looking for from the counseling relationship." [Corey p.287]
Gerald Corey is talking here of the Person centred approach. He has clearly given a lot of thought to issues of race and culture. He strongly favours a multi-cultural approach to councelling and discusses in some detail the problems, advantages and professional implications for theory and practice. He is concerned that the needs of ethnic minorities are not always met, and has much of interest to say on the subject of cultural difference and core values. He has almost no insight, however, into the effects of the status of different cultures.
"This path [multlculturalism] provides a picture of this society as a cultural mosaic rathier than a melting pot. It offers a basis for helpers to develop new structures, paradigms, policies and practices that are responsive to all groups in society." [Corey p.18]
The mosaic image is a telling one. A mosaic consists of coloured fragments embedded in a white cement. It is the ever present, ever dominant white western culture that holds, defines, separates, deliniates and controls the multi-cultural mosaic pieces, and it is colour that distinguishes them. Compare this with the Rainbow Nation image of the new South Africa. There is no pure white, no separation, and no domination of one colour. Cultural variation is pictured as a natural phenomenon; a spectrum which does not contain boundaries.
"Practitioners writing about multicultural counseling often assert that many counselling approaches fail to meet the complex needs of various ethnic and minority clients because of stereotyped narrow perceptions of those needs. Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanlcs, Native Americans and members of other minority groups leave counseling significantly earlier than do Euro-Amerlcan clients. This tendency is often caused by cultural barriers....." [Corey p.19]
Here we can clearly see the sorting of the mosaic pieces by visual (racial) characteristics and especially by skin colour. From a European perspective it seems strange that Irish and German cultures for example are not distinguished/ while Hispanics seem to have been ejected from Europe altogether, presumably because of their darker complexions. One strongly suspects that Arabs are likewise barred from Africa and sent to join Asia/ the land of "other" religions and "other" complexions. Gerald Corey claims to be talking about culture and ethnicity, but the groups which he specifies are racial and not cultural. Notice too, the way that "Euro" is punctuationally linked to "American", unconsciously signalling a special relationship denied to other groups. Again, it is clear that "Euro-American" behaviour is the standard against which all other groups are measured and from which they deviate. Mr Corey goes on to locate the cultural barriers within the minority groups, but it is possible to turn the whole question around…
Let us consider why it is that Euro-Americans - and what is meant here is strictly white Americans, visibly mixed race Americans are involuntarily assigned to the "inferior race" -why do whites, then, remain in counselling significantly longer than everyone else? Maybe white culture is inherently more damaging to the individual than other cultures; maybe their fundamental belief in their own superiority leads them to suppose that their own problems are more significant; perhaps our culture's responsibility for the Holocaust/for the murder and enslavement of millions of Africans and the destruction of their culture, for global pollution and global warming, etc. etc. leads to particular problems with guilt and shame; perhaps we are psychologically a weaker race; or maybe white counsellors are less able to challenge white clients effectively.
This is in no way presented as a definitive analysis but simply as an example of how easy it is to transfer the "barriers" from one culture to another or even, Rogers forbid, to the counsellors themselves.
All this talk of cultural differences serves mainly to obscure and deny the reality of racial oppression. Take for example the case of African Americans. The vast majority of African Americans are descended from slaves. Their traditions, their history, their languages, their tribal origins, their freedom, their names, their very humanity were deliberately taken from them. Their history begins with slavery and their culture is the culture of the oppressed. Their continuing rejection by white society has led to the formation of a culture which is at once part of, and a reaction to, the racist, exploitative and abusive culture of western civilisation. Debarred by whites from assimilation, the heroic search for African roots becomes a psychological necessity.
The core value system of the dominant American culture is expressed in the American Dream of the self made man. Social mobility allows the individual to rise by his own efforts to the heights of society. Corey identifies freedom, responsibility and achievement as the core values of western models.
"....self-contained, individualism helps sustain the core values and institutions that represent North American society today."[Corey p.21]
British society used to operate with ideas of class and station, which moderated and limited these core values. Freedom and responsibility were exercised within the boundaries of one's given position in society which one was not expected to transcend. Having "ideas above one's station" was not encouraged. This is replaced in America with the "self-evident" equality of all men. The individual is thus responsible for his social and economic status as well as the general conduct of his life. Let us be clear here, equality is not regarded as an ideal towards which we should strive, requiring the privileged to make sacrifices so that equal opportunity can become a reality. It is declared to be already true. No redistribution of wealth is required; the poor and deprived are by definition responsible for their plight, because we are all equal. Wealth and status are thus made identical with high morality.
This is a very comforting delusional system for Euro-American professors and for privileged people everywhere, and a great deal of effort is put into maintaining it. Multiculturalism is one way of "explaining" why ethnic and racial minorities remain ghettoised and poor:- their values are different.
People whose skin colour and facial features result in their daily experiencing negative discrimination have some difficulty in believing the myth of equality and some even attempt to make it more of a reality. Incredibly though, many of them swallow the lie and some of these dutifully go along to counselling sessions to learn to be more responsible and raise their self-esteem.
I have tried in this essay to write a reasoned academic analysis of my dissatisfaction with this book. It is far from exhaustive, but I confess I am quite pleased with my effort. Last night I read some pages by Carl Rogers, and now I want to finish in a more personal way.
I am privileged, as a white man, to live with a highly sensitive and insightful woman of mixed race. My partner has helped me to see that the life-experiences of black people are radically different to those of whites. The other day, she went to buy some trousers for her daughter. An assistant rushed up and fussed round, insisting that only one person was allowed in the changing room and keeping a close watch on everything. A white woman and her daughter were freely allowed into the changing room together and were left in peace to choose their clothes. Clearly, the assistant thought that my partner might try to steal, and she felt obliged to explain and reassure at each stage; "I'm putting these two pairs back now because they are too small, and taking these three others to try on, then we will decide which ones to buy." A simple, everyday transaction becomes a drama, a mutual problem and a source of stress, and the apparent cause is my partner herself. Any suggestion of discrimination would have been dismissed as paranoia.
This kind of incident occurs every time my partner goes out, but whenever she tries to draw attention to it, she is met with denial. "We treat everyone the same." and "There's no racism here." have become familiar refrains to us. It is so depressing, when one has a problem with one's daughter being racially and culturally isolated at school, to be told by child guidance that it is just like having freckles.
Naively, I thought that counselling would be different. These people will understand, will empathise. This is why I am shocked and angry to find this book doing the very same things; ie. locating the source of the problem in the minority culture, denying the existence of racial prejudice as a major barrier to communication, and completely ignoring the ethnicity of the counsellor while in fact assuming that they are all white. The problems of ethnic minority clients are relegated to a separate section at the end of each chapter the main body of which deals with "normal" people - people like us? What about black counsellors Mr Corey? Do they also need to "... accept the challenge of modifying your strategies to meet the unique needs of special populations."[Corey p.19]? Mr Corey is only talking to "Euro-American" counsellors; he does not see the need for black counsellors. He cannot even bring himself to talk honestly about race and colour, hiding instead behind euphemisms like "Euro-American", "culture", "ethnic minority", etc. How on earth can he expect black people, or native Americans, or anyone for that matter to be open with him?
I thought I had finished there but I am struck by the difference in tone between "Native American" and "native American". The former seems to prioritise ethnicity over nationality; it- emphasises a separatness from other kinds of American (Immigrant Americans?), whereas the latter would seem to allow all Americans a measure of commonality, and I like it more.

Corey, G. (1995) The Theory and Practice of Group Counseling 4th Edition, International Thompson.hooks/ bell. (1992) Black looks: Race and Representation, ISBN 1873262027.Krishnamurti, J. and Bohm, D. (1985) The Ending of Time, New York: HarperCollins.Laing, R. D. (1967) The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, Harmondsworth: Penguin.Rogers/ C. R. (1951) Client-Centered Therapy, London: Constable.Rogers, C. R. (1980) A Way of Being, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Szasz, T. S. (1962) The Myth of Mental Illness, Seeker & Warburg.Wright, R. (1945) Black Boy, reprinted (1998) London: Pan.

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